Synopses & Reviews
The rediscovery of a masterpiece of Central European literature originally published in Budapest in 1942 and unknown to modern readers until last year. An extraordinary novel about a triangular relationship, about love, friendship, and fidelity, about betrayal, pride, and true nobility.
In a castle at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, an old aristocrat waits to greet the friend he has not seen for forty-one years. In the course of this one night, from dinner until dawn, the two men will fight a duel of words and silences, of stories, of accusations and evasions, that will encompass their entire lives and that of a third person, missing from the candlelit dining hall the now dead chatelaine of the castle. The last time the three of them sat together was in this room, after a stag hunt in the forest. The year was 1900. No game was shot that day, but the reverberations were cataclysmic. And the time of reckoning has finally arrived.
Already a great international best-seller, Embers is a magnificent addition to world literature in the English language.
"This 1942 novel by a forgotten Hungarian novelist, rediscovered and lucidly and beautifully translated, is a brilliant and engrossing tapestry of friendship and betrayal, set against a backdrop of prewar splendor....Marai eloquently explores the tight and twisted bonds of friendship." Publishers Weekly
"Questions of honor, truth, and friendship are entertained here, and though the novel inevitably has an old-fashioned feel, the questions it raises are timeless." Library Journal
"Márai is in the almost unique position of having attained posthumous best-sellerdom (in country after country) because he distills plot and description to a magic essence of atmosphere, empathy and narrative tension that no European writer has achieved since Joseph Roth." Berthier Zeitung
"A novel that pares all superfluous detail away from plot and character to achieve maximum tension. Hemingway goes Habsburg!" Stadtzeitung Wien
"A literary master lays bare the essentials what is truth, what are the questions we ask, what is the meaning of life itself and lets them explode into action. His philosophy is profound but hardly leaves a footprint and is virtuoso in its clear-sighted precision. This novel is a literary rediscovery of the first rank." Hamburger Abendblatt
About the Author
Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1900. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930s. Profoundly antifascist, he survived World War II, but persecution by the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy and then to the United States. Márai committed suicide in San Diego in 1989. He is the author of a significant body of work, which Knopf is translating into English.
Reading Group Guide
1. What makes the bonds of a “friendship that reaches back to childhood” so strong that “death itself cannot undo” it [pp. 141–2]? If friendship is, in fact, “a duty,” as Henrik asserts [p. 110], what is the nature of the “duty” between Henrik and Konrad? Did one or the other fail in this obligation, and if so, how? Was Konrad “faithless” [p. 112]?
2. What was the “debt” that one of them feels toward the other after Henrik meets Konrads parents and learns the truth about Konrads background [p. 47]? How does this realization change the nature of their friendship? Was this event the turning point in their friendship?
3. Henrik says, “One would need to know why all this happened. And where the boundary lies between two people. The boundary of betrayal. . . . And also, where in all this my guilt lies” [p. 169]. Of what is Henrik guilty? If Henriks twice-made assertion that the guilt is “in the intention” [pp. 112, 139–140] is true, which was Konrads greatest offense: his intention to kill Henrik, his affair with Krisztina, or his abandonment of their friendship? Or, as Henrik speculates, was both mens betrayal of Krisztina the greatest offense of all [p. 192]?
4. On more than one occasion, the men allude to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Referring to their past as soldiers, Konrad says, “What we swore to uphold no longer exists” [p. 93], and Henrik later speculates further that “Perhaps this entire way of life which we have known since birth, this house, this dinner, even the words we have used this evening to discuss the questions of our lives, perhaps they all belong to the past” [p. 182]. In what ways is the novel an elegy to the past, to a lost way of life? Can the course of Henrik and Konrads friendship be read as a metaphor for the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?
5. Márai writes, “And because of their friendship, each forgave the others original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other” [p. 61]. How do the different circumstances of their births contribute to Henrik and Konrads separation? Which is the greater sin in this friendship–wealth or poverty? What kind of society allows for this comparison of wealth and poverty to original sin? Is this a comparison that would hold true in all societies?
6. Konrads differences, according to Henrik and his father, made him unsuited to the career of a soldier [pp. 52–4]. The implication is that Henrik, by contrast, was imminently suited to the career of a soldier. But is the portrait of the hardened general consistent with the young Henrik who nearly died in Paris because he “needed love” [p. 29], and who wanted to be poet [p. 30]? And if it was actually Henriks personality that was not suited to the military, could it have been Henrik who envied Konrad his differences, rather than Konrad who envied Henrik his birthright?
7. Henrik says: “There are worse things that suffering and death . . . it is worse to lose ones self-respect. . . . Self-respect is what gives a person his or her intrinsic value” [p. 190]. Does Henrik retain his self-respect by adhering to the noble “male virtues: silence, solitude, the inviolability of ones word, and women” [p. 69]? What is lost in the preservation of self-respect? Does Henrik have any regrets about the way he has chosen to live his life?
8. What motivated Konrad to introduce Henrik to his parents and their poverty? Was it the same motivation that made Krisztina want to keep a diarythe fear that “life will fill with something that can no longer be shared, a genuine secret, indescribable, unutterable” [p. 160]? Is it this common trait that drives Konrad and Krisztina together?
9. What is the nature of the revenge Krisztina achieves by dying? Is this different from the revenge that Henrik seeks from his meeting with Konrad, and if so, how [p. 182]?
10. What is the truth that Henrik seeks from Konrad [p. 93]? Does Henrik gain the insight for which hes looking, or did he somehow already have it? Is Konrads refusal to answer Henriks question on p. 204 tantamount to a confession, or does it reveal something else? By throwing Krisztinas diary into the fire, is Henrik acknowledging that he already knows the truth or indicating that it is not in the diary at all [p. 205]?
11. In the society of Konrad and Henriks youth, “[F]ifty million people found their security in the feeling that their Emperor was in bed every night before midnight and up again before five, sitting by candlelight at his desk in an American rush-bottomed chair, while everyone else who had pledged their loyalty to him was obeying the customs and the laws. Naturally true obedience required a deeper commitment than that prescribed by laws. Obedience had to be rooted in the heart: that was what really counted. People had to be certain that everything was in its place” [p. 56]. How did this society foster Henriks personality? Without the influence of such an environment, how might he have behaved after Konrads departure?
12. How do the Europeans differ from the natives in Konrads account of his life in the tropics [pp. 80–83] Do these stereotypes date the novel? How do they play to modern political sensibilities?
13. What qualities do the Arabs display that Henrik admires [p. 123]? Do Arabs embrace the truth about mans natural instincts to kill while Westerners simply disguise it [pp. 124–9]? Does Henriks character embody an element of Western hypocrisy?
14. Music plays a significant role in the novel, especially in the power it holds over Henriks mother, Konrad, and Krisztina [p. 178]. Why its influence inherently dangerous [p. 51]? Is there a similarity between the symbolism and meaning of the hunt for Henrik and his father and the power of music over the others [p. 122]?
15. How does Henriks parents marriage influence his own marriage? What might the King have “said to the young wife who had come from a foreign country and wept as she danced” [p. 24]?
16. What happens to Henriks mother when she moves from the city to the castle deep in the forest [pp. 20–22]? How is Henrik affected as he moves from his castle in the forest to the city [p. 27]? How do these changes in landscape alter their behavior and highlight their different temperaments? Does Konrad have a similar experience when he moves to the tropics [pp. 80–83]?
17. As Nini and Henrik gaze at the dining room, “All of a sudden the objects seemed to take on meaning, as if to prove that everything in the world acquires significance only in relation to human activity and human destiny” [p. 71]. How does the appearance of the room recall Henriks and Krisztinas view of Konrads room forty-one years earlier [p. 166]? What can objects reveal about customs and traditions? About emotions and relationships? What does Henriks replacement of Krisztinas picture in the castles portrait gallery signify?
18. One might read Embers as a study of the powers and the limitations of words: the spoken word, as seen in the conversation between Konrad and Henrik, and the written word, as represented by the diary of Krisztina. At one point, Henrik muses: “Sometimes it seems to me that it is precisely the words one utters, or stifles, or writes, that are the issue, if not the only issue” [p. 117]. And later he says:
What can one ask people with words? And what is the value of an answer given in words instead of in the coin of ones entire life? . . . Not much. . . . There are very few people whose words correspond exactly to the reality of their lives. It may be the rarest thing there is. . . . Nevertheless, one can get closer to reality and the facts by using words, questions and answers” [pp. 163–4].
Do words have inherent power as Henrik proposes? What are the limits of language? How does the power of the written word compare to the power of the spoken word? Significantly, it is not with words that the book ends, but with the kiss between Henrik and Nini, which is “an answer, a clumsy but tender answer to a question that eludes the power of language” [p. 213]. Does this kiss provide the answer to Henriks second question?
19. A third-person narrator tells the history of Henriks family and his youthful friendship with Konrad, but then the events during and after their last dinner together with Krisztina are recounted from only Henriks perspective. How is the readers view of the story affected by hearing only his voice for this part of the story and not Konrads? How might Konrad have told the story, and how might his point of view have changed the whole tone and focus of the novel?
“As masterly and lovely a novel as one could ask for. . . . Embers is perfect.” The Washington Post Book World
Originally written in 1942 by the well-regarded Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai, Embers was translated into English in 2001 and became an international bestseller. The following introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography are intended to enhance your groups reading of this exciting new literary discovery in which the classic formula of a love triangle is manipulated into an original and exquisite tale of honor, friendship, betrayal, and declining aristocracy.